What Is Child Abuse and How to Spot It
|Expert Reviewed||Alicia Bradley, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)|
What Is Child Abuse?
Child abuse is ANY harm done to a child by someone responsible for the care of that child. Abuse may be a singular incident or a pattern of behavior. It can take place anywhere, from a child's home, day care center or home day care to a school or church. An abuser can be just about anyone from a parent or other family member to a child-care provider, scout leader, teacher, or any other adult that the child is in the care of.
The definitions of abuse tend to vary from state to state, but most laws cover four main types of abuse. They are:
- Physical Abuse: Physical harm to a child such as hitting, kicking, etc.
- Sexual Abuse: Anything of a sexual nature involving a child.
- Emotional Abuse: Damage done to a child's emotional state.
- Neglect: Failure to provide for the basic needs of a child. (i.e., withholding food or medical care)
Sometimes, these forms of abuse are found alone, but more often than not, they are found in a combination of more than one type of abuse. For example, a child who is physically abused is often emotionally abused or neglected as well. Or a child may be being beaten and belittled, combining physical and emotional abuse.
The Warning Signs of Child Abuse
Unexplained or frequent bruises
Torn, stained, or bloody underwear
Difficulty walking or sitting
Bruising or trauma to the genital or anal area
Lack of proper dental and health care
The child complains of itching or pain of the genital area
Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather conditions
Acting in an oversexualized manner
Child Protective Services
If you believe that a child is in immediate danger and is being abused, contact your local Child Protective Services branch. Every state and county has a CPS office though some states use a different name such as Department of Children and Family Services or simply Social Services.
Signs of Physical Abuse
Signs of physical abuse are often the most easily recognized. Physical abuse is also the most commonly thought of form of abuse when someone mentions child abuse. Therefore, it is the one that is most often reported on.
Easily recognized signs that a child is being physically abused are:
- Unexplained or frequent bruises
- Broken bones
Bruises, cuts and broken bones in various stages of healing show a long-standing pattern of abuse.
Now, children do get cuts and bruises. Especially physically active children. It is all a part of being a kid, but there is often a clear difference between normal bruises and suspicious bruises.
Normal bruising areas on a child are:
A child will fall off of their bike and scrape up their knees and hands. This is normal, and not a cause for concern. However, bruising on non-bony parts of the body can indicate that the child has been abused.
Suspicious bruising areas are:
- The face
- Upper legs
- The backs of the legs
It is much harder for a child to bruise themselves in these areas through normally occurring accidents. That is not to say that it is impossible, and does not mean that any bruise in these areas is considered as abuse.
I recall my time working in childcare, where we had a small child who was just getting the hang of walking and fell down quite often. On several occasions, she fell on her bottom and landed on something in her way. It, once or twice, resulted in bruises on her bottom from the fall. My own daughter has done the same thing. Just be aware that there are normal bruises, and there are also not so normal bruises.
Behavioral Signs of Physical Abuse
There are other signs of physical abuse are harder to see, and they require attention. If a child seems frightened of a parent or caregiver, or cries when they are around, that child may have good reason to fear that person. Behavioral changes such as lashing out, hitting, biting, or withdrawal are also signs that a child may be being abused. A child may even tell you that he or she has been hurt by a parent or other caregiver. This may be the child reaching out for help. The child may have just received a spanking. Some see spanking as a useful form of discipline, while others see it as abuse. It is not often viewed as abuse in the eyes of the law. Also, pay attention to how the child responds when you ask them how they got those bruises in the first place. If they respond with some automatic answer or seem nervous and anxious answering, that may be a giveaway that they have been physically abused.
Accidental Bruising Areas
Non-Accidental Bruising Areas
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Sadly, sexual abuse of children is far too common. It occurs in many forms, from exposing a child to inappropriate situations or images, to fondling, rape, and sodomy. It is fairly recognizable in most of the more extreme cases, but far too often, it goes unreported.
Some of the more obvious signs that a child has been sexually abused are:
- Torn, stained, or bloody underwear
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Bruising or trauma to the genital or anal area
- The child complains of itching or pain of the genital area
These are relatively clear-cut signs that a child may have been sexually abused in some way.
Behavioral Signs of Sexual Abuse
Other signs show up in a child's behavior. A sexually abused child may act out in an overly sexual manner or engage in highly sexualized play. They often act in an overly mature manner, or, in other words, act more like an adult than they should. They may be unwilling to participate in activities, or be withdrawn, or exhibit poor self-esteem. Additionally, the child may act inappropriately around other adults: struggling with understanding appropriate boundaries is another sign that they may have been sexually abused.
Again, a child may tell you that they have been sexually abused, though they may not always know that that is what has happened to them. They may tell you that daddy touched them, or that their scout leader asked them to do inappropriate things. It is difficult for children to come forward when they have been sexually abused. They often don't understand what has been done to them, or they don't have the words to tell you. They often feel shame, or feel that the person did it because they 'loved them.' Sexual abuse is very difficult for children to understand and to come to terms with.
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Emotional abuse is by far the hardest to recognize, the most socially accepted, and the most difficult to prove. Many things that are, in truth, emotional abuse, are far too often ignored. It should not be that way, because emotional abuse has a very real, lasting effect on a child's self-worth, and should be taken seriously.
As I said, emotional abuse is the hardest to recognize. The signs manifest in behavior. A child may exhibit extremes in behavior from extreme aggression to extreme passivity. A child who is emotionally abused may have unexplained delays in physical or emotional development, including speech disorders or habit disorders such as sucking or biting.
They often act in ways that are uncharacteristic of a child of their age. They may either act overly mature or overly immature. They may engage in antisocial or destructive behavior. They may often parrot the behavior of the abuser; calling kids names, bullying, or doing other things to emotionally harm others.
Emotional abuse is hard to recognize, so I am including some forms of emotional abuse for information purposes. I did not feel the need to do so for the other forms, because they are more clear-cut, and more well known.
Emotional abuse includes:
- Ignoring the child's emotional needs
It can also include cruel restrictions or punishments that do not involve physical harm, such as tying a child to a chair for running around in the house or overly shaming a child for wetting his or her pants.
Psychological unavailability is also emotionally abusive to a child. Refusing to talk to a child, not showing love or affection towards the child, and leaving a child with an unfamiliar and uncaring caregiver are examples of psychological unavailability.
Also, allowing the psychological needs, or difficulties, of a child to go untreated falls into emotional abuse. You are not meeting the needs of the child. Failure to seek treatment for a child after recommendations to have the child assessed, evaluated, or treated for emotional problems is not only furthering the emotional abuse; it is also neglectful.
Verbal abuse is the most common, and most socially accepted type of abuse. It falls in line with emotional abuse. It is verbal violence against a child, and it is WRONG! Taunting, humiliation, or deliberate frightening of a child is damaging to the child's self-worth. I can't count the times I have been in a store and have heard a parent tell a child to behave, or they were going to leave them in the store. In my time working at a daycare, I heard every horrible thing you can imagine. Parents who called their children all kinds of mean names, even some of a profane nature, parents who threatened children, other caregivers who humiliated children for wetting their pants while the child was potty training. It was enough to make me sick.
Emotional abuse is rarely reported as abuse. It is hard to prove, and except in extreme cases, not really seen as abuse. When people think of abuse, they think of the other three forms of abuse, and see emotional abuse as more of a side product of one of the other forms of abuse. While this is often the case, it is not the rule. A child can be emotionally abused without a caregiver ever laying a finger on them.
Signs of Neglect
A child who is neglected is deprived of the very things a child needs to survive. What do we all need to survive? Food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. These are the types of things a child who is neglected is often deprived of.
A child who is neglected often is lacking proper medical or dental care or is not up to date on their immunizations. I know that there has been a lot of attention lately about the safety of immunizations, and some parents are refusing to immunize their children. That is different. They feel that they are acting in the interests of their children, not neglecting to give them what they need. Do I agree with all of the parents who refuse to get their children immunized? No, but that is neither here, nor there. I do understand that they feel they are acting in the best interests of their children. That is not neglect.
A child who is neglected is constantly hungry, dirty, or lacks sufficient clothing for the weather conditions. They may resort to stealing food or clothing. They often have poor hygiene. If a parent forgets to send a jacket along with the child to school, on the off chance that the day might be chilly, that is usually of no concern, but if a child is out in the cold, on a winter day with no coat, that is a problem.
I recall when I was working daycare, there was one child who frequently came to school wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts in the horrible heat of the desert summer. Her hair was often very dirty, and she had a chronic problem with lice. This child was obviously being neglected. She was wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather, she was not getting bathed, and her medical needs (the lice) were not being taken care of.
Premature competence is a very particular form of neglect, in which a very young child is made to take on roles and responsibilities that are not appropriate for a child of that age. For example, a six-year-old child being responsible for the care of a two-year-old sibling in the evenings while a parent is away from the house. Or a young child being forced to take on all of the household responsibilities, including making dinner and cleaning the house. I do feel that chores are important for children so that they learn a sense of responsibility for the mess they make, but a young child should not be expected to basically fend for themselves.
The direct victim of the abuse is often seen as the only victim, but that is not always the case. Even if a child is never touched, the abuse still hurts that child. A child seeing his or her brother or sister being beaten is still affected by that abuse. A child knowing that a friend or sibling has been raped or sexually abused is still a victim of that abuse. That child is still scarred by that abuse.
Child abuse is a devastating issue in this country. News stories of the sex scandals in the Catholic church, stories of children being beaten and killed, stories of Shaken Baby Syndrome and it's devastating effects. Abuse is everywhere. The saddest thing I have learned is that laws protecting animals from abuse were in effect long before there were ever laws protecting children from abuse.
In the late 1800's, there was a child named Mary Ellen. She was horribly abused by the adults in charge of her care. Friends and neighbors tried to help her but learned that there were no laws against the abuse or neglect of children. They had to go to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals!!
The NYSPCA took their case to court and argued that humans, including children, were in essence, animals, and therefore, deserving of protection under the laws against cruelty to animals. The court agreed. From that time on, every state has enacted laws protecting children from abuse and neglect. It is hard to believe that animals were safe from abuse, yet children were not.
What to Do if You Suspect Child Abuse
If you believe that the child is in imminent danger, do not hesitate to contact child protective services. However, some cases of child abuse are not as clear-cut and require a more balanced approach. Don't just confront the parent outright and accuse them of wrongdoing. Approach the situation from a place of caring and understanding. The parent may be struggling with work, overwhelmed with parenthood, or dealing with their own mental health issues. Offering help and support is a good way to go about the situation.
- The article has been modified since this review was written.
Questions & Answers
© 2008 Anna Marie Bowman